When words mean nothing… even to the Chinese…
The horrors of China’s earthquake are rightly dominating the news – and what with the disaster in Burma, it has been a gruesome few days. For those who have been bereaved, their lives will never of course be the same. But what of the wider societies in which these disasters have occurred? When the dust has settled, and the semblances of normality return, what of the regimes that have desperately clung to respectability and authority during these disasters? Well, the Olympics are certainly placing the Chinese government under the microscope. Which brings me to a unique exhibition I visited over the weekend.
I hadn’t really appreciated the fact before, but once it was pointed out to me, it made sense. For in the history of Chinese art, calligraphy has played a hugely important role. The reason is simple: the Chinese language doesn’t have an alphabet as such, but is of course made up of hundreds of symbols or characters (their origins having often derived from pictograms or images taken everyday life). The resulting creative dynamic between Chinese characters and imagery (even abstract imagery) is then not hard to understand.
I had a few hours spare on my own on Saturday (a VERY unusual experience!) and so pottered just down the road to Asia House, where there is currently an exhibition of Khoan and Michael Sullivan’s private collection of Modern Chinese Art. She was herself Chinese and thus gave Michael access to an amazing range of artists over the second half of the 20th Century, and together they built up a staggering collection (despite, for example, the horrors and traumas of Mao’s cultural revolution). He subsequently became an internationally respected Chinese Art historian. It was a small exhibition – but fascinating.
A handful of artists stood out – one was Xu Bing. Xu Bing was born in 1955 and grew up in Beijing. When he was 20 he was ‘relocated’ to the countryside during the cultural revolution. 2 years later he returned and enrolled in an art college. He now works in New York and has become well known in various circles, especially because of his wood engraving. And he seems deliberately to play on the relationship between Chinese language characters and imagery. The top left picture is one of a series of his – called LANDSCRIPT. Its significance is lost on most of us – for the picture is made up of words (inspired from a trip into the Nepalese Himalayas), the words for the features which they form (like forest, wood, river, mountain etc). So not only does it depict features of a landscape – it tells you what you are seeing, at the same time!
But the scale of Xu Bing’s most extraordinary work could only be hinted at in the Asia House exhibition – with photographs and a few sample pages under perspex. For over a period of 4 years, he created The Book From the Sky. He painstakingly created wooden blocks for the characters (above right) – and then printed them by hand on sheet after sheet of parchment (above left) – hundreds in fact. And the original intention was for the pages to be then draped from a gallery ceiling and spread across a floor (as in the image below taken from the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa).
It looks stunning. But again, despite the aesthetic beauty of a photograph like this, its significance will be completely lost on those of us who can’t read Chinese. Because, you know what? It is all MEANINGLESS. None of the characters means anything at all, because each one was invented by Xu Bing. All 4000 of them. So not even a fluent Chinese reader will be able to make head or tail of it. It is therefore making a profound political and philosophical statement.
It has the air of a religious document, an ancient holy book. The awed hush its display inspires would certainly befit that. As a westerner, you can only look at it and imagine the centuries of wisdom compiled and preserved – if only you could read it… But it is inaccessible – not even its author understands it. And when you do discover the point it is making, it makes you question every other text. Sure we can understand the ‘meaning’ of the words – but what do they signify? Anything? In a country which has suffered at the hands of harsh ideological government, can you take anything they say seriously? For a man who experienced 2 years ‘relocation’ it would be hard to, don’t you think?
There was a tragic moment on the news the other night when Hu Jintao was doing the post-earthquake rounds of the dislocated, dispossessed and distressed. There was the pathetic sight of a young girl in tears, utterly distraught and disorientated. Her home was gone… what of her family? The Premier could only say, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be OK; the government will build you a new home’. The classic response of the state machine. (Though in the capitalist west, we would expect nothing less than the same – e.g. federal aid (such as it was) after Hurricane Katrina.) But can you trust it? Or was that just spin for the western media? Will we ever know if that girl finds a home? A house, perhaps. But a home?
Spin is pervasive. But has it ever been different? Haven’t words always been just a game, truth claims just power claims (as Foucault chillingly rammed home)? We’re groomed now to be suspicious of anything anyone says, not just when it comes from politicians. So even if the Book from the Sky had been made up of intelligible Chinese characters, would it have represented, or been, a guide into reality? Many would doubt it.
Which is why I keep coming back in my mind to a profound sense of gratitude and relief that our ultimate benchmark of reality, truth and the world is not actually the written word (shock horror). It is not a matter of words strung together – but THE Word strung up on a Cross. For one of the Word’s most impressive characteristics is his integrity. Many tried in vain to dig around and expose his flaws. But his renunciation of spin, manipulation and power trips was absolute – the cross proved that once and for all. The cross not only gives him credibility in a suffering and anchor-less world, but also provides us all with access to a reliable reality. And so Xu Bing has a profound point – as does Foucault – if human words are all we are left with. We do need to be suspicious of human intentions – but the Bible has always known that. It has a special word for it – sin. Which is why the message of the Sinless Word brings such revolutionary joy.